On hostile ground

By Michelle Chen Apr 22, 2009

From the Big Easy to the Georgia Woods, Latinos are finding themselves on hostile territory in the fields and factories of the South. The Southern Poverty Law Center has released a report on the widespread abuse to which low-wage Latino workers are subjected in Southern states. Focusing on Nashville, Charlotte, New Orleans, rural southern Georgia and northern Alabama, the Center’s survey research uncovered a striking degree of exploitation. While nearly one in three workers reported suffering work-related injuries, most of those had not received appropriate medical care. The vast majority "had no idea" how to reach oversight agencies like the Department of Labor. About four in ten workers reported having wages stolen from them. Even “legal” channels for immigrant employment have led to routine violations. In New Orleans, according to the report, post-Katrina recovery efforts opened the floodgates for coercion, rampant wage and hour violations, and squalid living conditions. Similarly, seasonal workers, funneled across the border through guest worker visa programs, reported being cheated by bosses holding them in virtual captivity. On the other hand, there are few reasons to assume government intervention would help. Nearly half of those surveyed said someone they knew had experienced mistreatment by law enforcement, such as police profiling and harassment. Reflecting the findings of another recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center, fewer than half of respondents expressed confidence in the police in dealing with crime. The report also details a disturbing overlap between ethnicity and gender: About 8 in 10 of Latina women reported that “sexual harassment was a major workplace problem.” The surveys showed that employers saw women as easy targets for discrimination and sexual violence, silencing them with the threat of reporting them to immigration authorities. Though survivors may likely be entitled to legal recourse even if they are undocumented, women are constrained from taking action by language barriers and general fear of government intervention. The narratives paint a picture of community life fraught with unequal treatment, from housing discrimination to bigoted attitudes among neighbors. Yet one quote in the report, from Misty Gomez, a homeowner in Pelham, Alabama, gives an intriguing perspective on local housing-occupancy restrictions that appear to target Latino residents. She told a Birmingham paper, "They are not going into white people’s $350,000 homes and checking to see who is there. Since the U.S. can’t pick on black people anymore, they have to pick on somebody, and now it’s Hispanics.” Though that observation comes from one of the hubs of the civil rights movement, many activists today would take issue with that last statement. There might be more historical resonance in this quote in the report, from a North Carolina farmer: “First we had sharecroppers, then tenant farmers and now we have Mexicans.” The research of the Southern Poverty Law Center—a group born from the racial justice movement for southern Blacks—illuminates the tragic continuity threading through a long, shared struggle for equity. Image: Southern Poverty Law Center